September 16, 2014

Spotlight on Ninth Street Elementary

Playground, Ninth Street School

Playground, Ninth Street School

Last week I attended a “Meet the Principal” event at Ninth Street Elementary, the zoned school for most of downtown LA. The school is reopening on Tuesday after being closed for a three-year, $54 million renovation of the campus. The school, located on 9th Street and Towne Avenue in the Fashion District, was in deep trouble before the closure. In 2010, LA Weekly wrote a devastating profile of the school, describing it as among the worst in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). At the time of its closure, the school’s API score (a measure of academic performance of California schools) was 670, far below the state target of 800, and it ranked 1 out of 10 on LAUSD’s “similar schools” ranking, making it one of the worst among its peers. It was Ninth Street’s terrible performance that led in part to a group of downtown parents forming Metro Charter elementary school (coincidentally also opening this fall).

Given Ninth Street’s history, I was curious to see the new campus and meet the folks who will be running the reopened school—a curiosity that deepened when the new principal and one of the school’s teachers reached out to me by email and invited me to visit. The principal, Dean Simpson, is not your average administrator—he has spent the past decade teaching, coaching and mentoring principals and teachers on effective teaching practices, lesson design, and professional development. I think that Simpson’s appointment is a clear signal that LAUSD is bringing out the big guns for Ninth Street and really wants this school to succeed.

Ninth Street Elementary Principal Dean Simpson

Ninth Street Elementary Principal Dean Simpson

When I first saw the new campus, I was seriously impressed. The campus (which the school shares with Ninth Street Middle School, a charter school run by the educational non-profit Para Los Niños) includes 33 classrooms housed in two buildings, a library, a gymnasium/assembly space, separate play areas for kindergarten, elementary and middle school students, and wireless Internet access for all students. The campus courtyard features a lawn and a vertical garden on one wall. The outer walls of the campus are made of zinc, giving it a look reminiscent of Disney Hall (and also providing extra security to a school located right next to Skid Row). The campus truly is a gem, making Ninth Street one of the most beautiful schools in LAUSD.

Daunting Challenges
But when the Meet the Principal session began, I got a reality check on the serious problems that will have to be tackled by the school. A representative from Union Rescue Mission was there to ask about busing students from the shelter (the mission provides emergency shelter for approximately 100 children). One family couldn’t afford the $10 per child cost of a TB test that is required of all incoming students. And all of the families were shocked to learn that the school will not provide transportation to most students (only homeless and special education students qualify for busing) and there will be no afterschool care for grades K-1. It was painful to hear parent after parent ask the principal what they were supposed to do with their children when school was dismissed. These are the working poor, folks who have no money for private childcare and no ability to take time off from work without being docked for pay or losing their jobs. Many of them also don’t own cars and are dependent on public transportation (and not in an “I’m a green hipster riding my fixie” kind of way), which means the simple act of taking their children to school every day is a potential hardship.

Vertical garden on Ninth Street School campus

Vertical garden on Ninth Street School campus

The $54 million campus is beautiful but the problems facing Ninth Street are daunting. In the words of an LAUSD report, “This school serves some of the most underprivileged students in the District, some of whom come from temporary housing and homeless shelters.” In the past, the school’s transiency rate–the number of students who enter and leave a school during the year–was an astounding 43.31% in 2009-2010 and 63.75% in 2008-2009. As a point of comparison, Clifford Street Elementary in Echo Park (the school my son attends) last year had a transiency rate of 12%.

I’ve been asked repeatedly whether or not middle-class loft dwellers will send their kids to Ninth Street and after visiting I have to say: Who cares, really? Middle-class folks have options. They may not be ideal options but if you have a car, a professional job and enough education to understand how to navigate the system, your kid will be fine regardless of what school they attend. I doubt most loft dwellers will consider sending their kids to Ninth Street, at least not until they have some proof that the school is safe and that their children can get a good education there. But the real challenge facing Principal Simpson and his team is this: How do you provide a high-quality education to some of the poorest students in the entire county? How do you teach kids who may be coming to school hungry, poorly dressed, sleep-deprived because they live in a crowded, noisy shelter, who may be victims of physical and sexual abuse, who live in homes with no books and without the means to buy even basic school supplies? How do you teach students who may spend only a few months in your classroom before moving to another school? These issues are related to fundamental problems in our society such as growing income inequality and the defunding of our public schools.

I really want to see Principal Simpson and his teachers succeed. I think it would benefit the downtown community a lot if we had a strong and academically performing local school, but that’s incidental to the main goal: Helping the students at Ninth Street to learn and thrive and have a decent shot at a better life. Will the downtown community support these kids or will we avert our eyes the way we do with the homeless on the streets? I hope we’re better than that.

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About Alisa Rivera

Alisa is a writer whose work has been featured in the Oregonian, the Syracuse Post-Standard, Latina magazine and other publications. She has also had her short fiction published in the Berkely Fiction Review and Iris: A Journal About Women. Alisa and her husband, James Hightower, have been happily raising their son, Nathan, in downtown Los Angeles since 2008. You can learn more about Alisa's work at www.alisarivera.com.